A stroke of luck during a lightning storm

Or, How my family and two dogs survived an Algonquin nightmare

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

Not very many people can genuinely say that they have been struck by lightning and lived to tell the story. It’s a tale my family (yes, all four of us plus the dogs) can share after a 1996 camping trip.
Algonquin Park has attracted our family for more than two decades. On a gorgeous, warm day in August of 1996, my husband Tom, our two sons, and I settled into a lovely wooded site at Lake of Two Rivers campground. Tom Jr. was 15 at the time, and Andrew was 11. We had planned to take the cedar strip canoe and our two kayaks on a day trip the following morning. The weather forecast indicated sunny skies and warm temperatures.
We arose by seven, ate a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans and rye bread, and packed a picnic for the trip. We portaged the boats from the campsite to the Lake of Two Rivers beach and were on our way by ten. Our Labrador retrievers, one black and one yellow, panted excitedly to be on the water again.
Tom and Andrew were each in a kayak. Tom and I were in the cedar strip, he in the stern and his trusty bows-person up front. We located the mouth of the Little Madawaska River and decided to explore it. Paddling leisurely upstream against a gentle current, it seemed an ideal day for an outdoor experience.
An hour or so later, we pulled the boats up at a portage imposed by an old railroad bed, its bridge – that once spanned this part of the river – long since rotted away. Trying to imagine the sounds of the steam engines of J.R. Booth’s lumber era rumbling through the forest, we set about preparing our lunch. A single burner stove was produced and we were able to boil enough water for our ‘cup-a-soup.’ Pita halves stuffed with salami and cheddar topped off the repast.
We regarded the first tremor of thunder with little concern. Ten minutes later, however, the velvet blackness of the northwestern sky, loud claps of thunder and violent gusts of wind sent us all scurrying for cover. A well-documented rule about thunderstorms is ‘don’t stay under a tree’. We were in the Algonquin Forest in thick bush so plan B was put into place.
We hurriedly ushered the boys under the upturned canoe with Molson, the black Lab puppy. Tom and I crouched together in the lowest spot possible with Daisy Mae the yellow Lab. We were pounded with torrential rain and the lightning was relentless. Suddenly, a blinding explosion of yellow light stung the air and we were hurled violently upward. We crashed back to the muddy ground. The first to regain consciousness, I immediately crawled forward to check Tom’s condition. He was breathing. A crying puppy and groans from the boys told us they had survived. They had been thrown upward and had hit the floor of the overturned canoe. Tom Jr. complained of painful feet and Andrew clutched the helping puppy tightly. Another ten minutes of lashing rain and crashing thunder made me feel like we were in a war zone, wondering whether the lightning might strike us again. My tingling toes and fingers also made me wonder about the possibility of heart attack.
At long last the pounding ceased and we launched the boats to make a hasty exit down river. I never knew we could paddle with such determination.
Later that evening, around the campfire, we marveled at the wonder of just being alive and the beauty all around us with a fresh perspective. As I placed my hand on Andrew’s blonde-tufted head, I felt two tiny bald spots behind the temple. His head had rested against the gunwale of the canoe and the screws must have conducted the electrical current and singed his hair. That was too close!
We later learned that what we had experienced was a phenomenon called ‘step current.’ We assume lightning struck a tree many yards away from where we were, and the ensuing charge then traveled through the ground, eventually throwing us upward. Our fingers and toes tingled for a couple of days, but we were far more fortunate than a university student who was struck and killed on Lake Opeongo during the same storm.
We learned a lesson that day: don’t ever underestimate the power of Mother Nature, or her unpredictability.